While Russia is gaining ground in eastern Ukraine, there was also positive military news last week. With the weapons received by the West, Ukraine has launched a number of successful attacks against the Russian army and is preparing a counter-offensive against southern cities like Kherson. Ukraine also launched its first attack on a Russian naval base in Crimea.
In addition, a new study by scientists at Yale showed that the sanctions are effective and have now paralyzed the Russian economy.
With the beginning of the transit of food from the Black Sea, the image may arise that Russia would be ready for an agreement. However, this is implausible. The country is already preparing for a long-term conflict and unfortunately Russia’s position vis-à-vis the West could improve significantly in the near future.
First, we must realize that Russia is expanding the conflict to more and more stages. In space, for example: Russia has indicated that it would stop collaborating on the International Space Station, which may endanger the entire project. This also applies to the maritime level: Putin this week approved a new maritime doctrine against American dominance of the world’s seas.
Not to mention the diplomatic scene, where Russia is very active and is trying to influence its image worldwide. In the former Soviet sphere, Putin has visited Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and has held summits with leaders in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Important consultations have been held with regional powers Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In Uzbekistan, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an Asian bloc led by China and Russia.
The same Lavrov also visited Africa, where he disseminated the Russian perspective on the war in Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and Congo. This ties in with anti-Western sentiment and with the economic concerns of many African leaders, as already demonstrated by Macky Sall, president of Senegal and currently chairman of the African Union.
In Africa, Russia has other instruments. In recent years, the Russian private army, the Wagner Group, has gained influence in countries such as Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya and more recently Burkina Faso. This could cause unrest on Europe’s borders.
Even more important than Russian diplomacy is that Western unity threatens to crumble. First, take the US. After the summer, the mid-term elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate will take place there and it is very likely that Biden’s position in Washington will weaken. Ukraine is currently not a major topic in the US. Foreign news in the US is about China and Saudi Arabia. However, the main topic on the news is inflation. Rising prices combined with a recession do not bode well for the incumbent government and its ability to conduct coherent foreign policy.
Consider Europe. Here we see a similar dynamic. The pain of higher prices is becoming more and more apparent and this is causing political tensions. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi was the first prominent victim of this when he resigned after clashing with the Five Star Movement over aid packages. After new elections, a right-wing coalition that favors a more positive relationship with Russia could come to power. Everywhere, including in rich countries such as the Netherlands, economic problems will put a lot of pressure on politicians in the coming months.
Tensions will also increase between European countries. The new Italian government will take office at a time of rising interest rates, which will bring renewed concerns about the debt burden of southern European countries. And also think of Eastern Europe. Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, stated last week that the European sanctions policy is failing and that the EU should not align itself with Ukraine, but between Russia and Ukraine. Impending energy shortages will sharpen the dividing line between countries that are more and less dependent on Russian gas.
So it is quite possible that Western unity and support for Ukraine will come under great pressure in the coming months, let alone possible disruptions such as a new corona wave.
This does not mean that Russia is going to win the war or that the West should push for an agreement with Russia now. This is not feasible. But it does mean that we have to think now about what we will do with a weaker position. And that it is time to look more outwardly and launch our own EU diplomatic offensive.
Read the original piece written in Dutch by Haroon Sheikh here